If the state were to set restrictions on incoming foreign students from third countries, it would mean financial loss for the universities, which the state would have to compensate with additional funding, Minister of Education and Science, Mailis Reps (Center) told ERR.
Head of the Citizenship and Migration Policy Department at the Ministry of the Interior, Ruth Annus, wrote in an appeal to the education and science ministry that, in relation to the spread of the coronavirus, universities and students can´t be sure that foreign students from third countries can come to study in Estonia starting from autumn, due to the risk of infection.
Annus added that half of the students with residence permits come from third countries, also with what she said was a high immigration risk, including India, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Furthermore, the Ministry of the Interior is planning to work on a draft to make the student immigration terms more strict.
Mailis Reps told ERR´s online show "Otse uudistemajast" Wednesday that restricting foreign students from coming to Estonia is a big worry for the rectors of Estonian universities.
"Let´s take the Estonian Music and Theatre Academy as an example. A considerable proportion of students there are from third countries. A big segment is from the EU as well. But we don´t know whether moving inside of the EU is possible during the course of the pandemic. At the moment, it is not possible. Quite a lot of students also come from Finland. There is also the question of whether our borders will remain open in autumn. We can´t predict anything. But this general signal that the borders of the EU will remain closed," Reps commented.
The minister said that things are nonetheless running in the opposite direction at the moment, and the leaders of the EU are talking about the borders being opened from June and, if possible, to the third countries as well. All of this is aimed at restoring economies.
"Nobody will keep the borders open just for the students, but the rectors are worried. The question is whether the students would take the risk of travelling," Reps said.
"If Estonia decides that local students don´t need to pay tuition fee, and if we add a situation where foreign students can´t come, then it´s clear that it would be a large minus to the budget. And to our small and bigger universities alike, it would mean a large amount of money," Reps said.
The program also talked about the forecast from outgoing Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) rector Jaak Aaviksoo, that in five to 10 years there will be paid-only higher education in Estonia, because there is simply not enough money.
Reps said that higher education definitely needs more funding, but she does not want to give up on free higher education.
"The expectation right now is that we don't want to give up free higher education whatsoever," Reps said.
"But yes, we must all say together whether we are ready for some taxation changes to collect more revenue, or whether we will find ways for universities to get their own resources. Sooner or later, this discussion will come," Reps said.
"I think we can expand the economy and collect taxes better on the one hand. Our tax base is clearly too low. There is also the option that we do not collect taxes, but all services become paid-only. That's what the economic model does," she added.
Editor: Roberta Vaino